‘Mad dog’ with a mighty bite

1 Comment

In Burkina Faso, the world’s third poorest country, President Blaise Compaoré just can’t let go of power.

The story of Burkina Faso and its president is a familiar African tale. President Compaoré has ruled Burkina Faso for almost two decades, first as a military ruler. Then, when the winds of change swept Africa, he reinvented himself as a champion of democracy in order to cling to power.

He won Burkina Faso’s first democratic elections in 1991 as the only candidate. Two weeks after the polls, Clement Ouédraogo, the main opposition leader, was assassinated, a crime for which no one has ever been charged.

In 1998, President Compaoré won another resounding victory, but only after opposition leaders boycotted the polls, alleging that the rules had been drafted to make the president’s re-election inevitable.

The widespread suspicion of electoral fraud notwithstanding, few doubted that President Compaoré would have won free and fair elections against a deeply divided opposition, and the president remained popular for bringing stability, if nothing else, to the country.

However, not long after the 1998 elections, Norbert Zongo, a journalist and prominent government critic, was murdered while investigating the death of a driver employed by the president’s brother. An independent, internationally sanctioned inquiry found that Zongo’s killers had strong links to the government. Public anger spilled onto the streets and Ouagadougou was the scene of massive strikes and demonstrations on a scale that Burkina Faso had never before witnessed.

A shaken government introduced a reform to the electoral law whereby presidents were limited to two terms.

In November last year, however, President Compaoré pulled a master stroke that would have made any lawyer proud. He announced that the law did not apply retroactively and that he was free to stand in November’s presidential elections, not to mention the following ones scheduled for 2012. The Constitutional Court, all of whose judges are Compaoré appointees, agreed.

Salif Diallo, director of the president’s re-election campaign, justified Compaoré’s creative legal interpretation in the following terms: ‘Legally, President Compaoré can be a candidate. A constitutional revision brings a new constitution with it and the old formula no longer holds.’

Rival presidential candidate of the opposition Union for Renewal Party, Benewende Sankara, was blunt in his assessment: ‘Compaoré’s candidacy is improper not only in legal terms ... it is improper because after 18 years of his rule, Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries on the planet even though there’s no war and politically things are stable.’

The opposition has a point.

President Compaoré presides over a country where almost 50 per cent of the population survives on less than US$1 a day. Adult literacy stands at 13 per cent and one in every five Burkinabés is malnourished. Just two per cent of the government’s budget is spent on health. Over one-third of the president’s countrymen will not live to age 40. In a year when one million Burkinabés were in need of food assistance and 90 per cent of the country’s harvest was lost to droughts and locusts, President Compaoré spent millions of euros on his re-election campaign.

Not surprisingly, the president won in what a presidential spokesman described as ‘an electoral spanking’, taking more than 80 per cent of the vote. Not one of the other 11 candidates reached the five per cent threshold.

When I ask Joseph, a taxi driver in Ouagadougou who refuses to give his full name, whether President Compaoré is popular, he says, ‘Those who are eating with him, they are happy. Those who do not eat, they are nothing.’

The tragedy is that, like in much of Africa, it didn’t have to be like this.

President Compaoré seized power in 1987 by ousting the popular Thomas Sankara in a bloody coup d’état.

‘Thom Sank’—as he is still affectionately known by Burkinabés—was no ordinary African leader. He had himself seized power in a military putsch in 1982, but his governing People’s Salvation Council decided that it was time to put the needs of ordinary citizens first and end the country’s reliance on handouts from the rest of the world.

He swapped the presidential limousine for a modest Renault 5, cut government salaries by a quarter and sent his entire cabinet to work in agricultural co-operatives. He also changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (which means ‘land of the incorruptible’ or ‘country of honest men’).

But Thomas Sankara’s populism owed as much to substance as it did to symbolism.

He waged war on corruption, oversaw a mass immunisation drive that UNICEF described as ‘one of the major successes in Africa’—during one 15-day period, his government vaccinated 60 per cent of Burkina Faso’s children against measles, meningitis and yellow fever—and built 350 schools and medical dispensaries in every village, all in just four years. Under Sankara, school attendance rose by 30 per cent and Burkina Faso was one of the few African countries to consistently record increases in per capita income during the years of his rule.

As if tackling poverty was not enough of a challenge, Thom Sank also had little time for the superpowers of the day, turning slogans such as ‘A people, however small, can conquer the most powerful imperialism in the world’ into national catchcries. He declared war on what he called ‘the enemies of the people both at home and abroad’ and stripped the wealthy—whom he called thieves—of privileges and landholdings.

Policies such as these endeared him to ordinary Africans across a region which is the poorest in the world, and Sankara became a charismatic figure of hope who offered real solutions to the disappointments of Africa’s post-independence misrule. Even in Mali, with whom he waged a five-day war in 1985, Thom Sank is still known as the Che Guevara of Africa, a tribute as much to his iconic personality and radical policies as to his cosy relationship with Fidel Castro.

Sankara’s charisma and blunt honesty may have been popular with ordinary Africans, but he quickly acquired powerful enemies. Within the country, landlords, tribal chiefs and trade union leaders, angry at the assault on their vested interests, began to plot his downfall. Sankara also suffered from the fact that during the Cold War of the 1980s, radical policies were far more likely to attract the attention of France (the former colonial power in Upper Volta) and the United States than were the statistics of dire poverty.

On 15 October 1987, the Sankara-inspired dream that a different kind of Africa was possible came to an end. Blaise Compaoré, a former friend of Sankara, seized power. Thom Sank was taken outside Ouagadougou and shot.

On the rubbish-strewn outskirts of the capital, Thom Sank’s grave is a place of furtive pilgrimage. Flowers are left by Burkinabés who remember how people’s power flourished under his rule far more than it ever has in the sham democracy that followed his death. They scurry away, lest they be seen. Alongside his tombstone is a rudimentary grave belonging to a small child, a moving symbol of the death that stalks the Burkina Faso of President Compaoré.

Although the president is a friend of the West, he is a pariah in his own neighbourhood, and the allegations of his involvement in illegal diamond-trading and his meddling in the conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast just won’t go away. A political analyst in neighbouring Mali—who also refused to give his name—could barely conceal his scorn when asked about Burkina Faso’s ruler. ‘Blaise Compaoré? He is a mad dog. He bites everyone.’

Sankara’s revolution died with him. Opposition politicians squabbled over his legacy, eager to be the next Sankara but more concerned with lining their own pockets. People in Ouagadougou tell the story of how Madame Sankara, Thom Sank’s exiled wife, summoned opposition figures to Paris to give money to the cause of defeating President Compaoré. On the plane that carried them back to Ouagadougou, the opposition leaders fought in the aisles over the money.

Joseph, the taxi driver, hurries me from Thom Sank’s grave and drives me through the capital. We pass vast wastelands where Ouagadougou’s shanty towns were bulldozed by the government. Dozens of entire city blocks have disappeared and the vibrant street life of central Ouagadougou has gone, perhaps forever. Desolate, overgrown fields littered with concrete blocks now stretch to the horizon. Although the former residents who lost their homes were compensated, the figures were small, even by African standards, and most have been rehoused more than 10km away from the city centre.

We leave behind this ghost town, where vultures circle overhead and open sewers line the roadside, and continue south to Ouaga 2000, a custom-built district of ordered streets, five-star hotels and high-walled luxury mansions owned by African presidents, royalty and Burkina Faso’s politicians. Ouaga 2000 is home to the new presidential palace that is larger than the White House. It is the ultimate escape for African élites who no longer have to look Africa in the eye.

‘This is for rich people,’ says Joseph.

I ask him how you become rich in Burkina Faso. His reply is immediate.


Anthony Ham has written extensively on Africa for Eureka Street for the past several years.



submit a comment

Existing comments

This was horrible news, it did not once even mention about formula's about dogs incredible bite, and how to resolve this problem. I wish it had mentioned what I had asked for...

Morgan Ickes | 31 December 2008  

Similar Articles

Aceh moving slowly forward

  • Peter Davis
  • 14 May 2006

Peter Davis charts the success of a land-remapping project.    



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up